Seeing 'Net result

The Baltimore Sun

When Orioles designated hitter Aubrey Huff walked into a Florida radio studio last week, he probably never thought he was about to join a fellowship that includes Monica Lewinsky, Britney Spears and Michael Vick.

But in the week since he impugned Baltimore's nightlife and shared the Bubba the Love Sponge studio with a naked porn star, Huff has become a subject of Internet infamy.

He's in hot water with fans and club executives over a radio appearance that never could have circulated five or 10 years ago. And he's learning a prime new media lesson: If you're a public figure, assume that anything said near a recording device will be heard by anyone and everyone.

Will Leitch, creator of Deadspin.com, the site most responsible for spreading the Huff video, sees no problem with that.

"The problem is with the way things were before," he says. "I can't see how flipping the switch toward more information is a bad thing."

Leitch, whose site received 9.5 million page views last month, sees himself as a crusader on behalf of free information. If athletes are going to profit from the mythology around them, he says, fans and bloggers have every right to punch holes in that mythology.

"It's this idea that because Peyton Manning can throw perfect spirals, I should emulate him in life," Leitch says. "I try to puncture that."

He does it with biting commentary and links to embarrassing video and audio clips. Fans eat it up, making Deadspin among the most popular of thousands of sports sites on the Internet. More than 15,000 browsers had viewed the site's Huff topic as of yesterday afternoon.

An opportunity

But John Maroon, longtime spokesman for Cal Ripken Jr., says athletes shouldn't be paranoid about the ever-growing swarm of media.

"I look at it as an opportunity to get your message out that much more," he says. "But the other side of that is you have to be aware of what you're walking into. Everything you say is going to be cut up and shared by so many outlets."

Ravens receiver Derrick Mason frequently hosts radio shows and says most athletes are aware of the widespread scrutiny.

"Even if you're at dinner or at a bar or wherever you may be, you might be talking to a friend and somebody overhears you. And when you come to work in the morning, it's in every Internet chat room or on the front of every sports publication out there," Mason says. "Yeah, you've got to be careful with what you say. Then again, you've got to be able to speak your mind and be honest, but in a way that doesn't shed a dark light on what you're talking about."

The Internet emerged as a news star in 1998, when Matt Drudge reported that Newsweek had refrained from publishing an account of Bill Clinton's relationship with a White House intern. The Monica Lewinsky scandal ensued and resulted in the president's impeachment.

Since then, the Web has become a repository for anything and everything having to do with celebrities. From a Paris Hilton sex tape to film director Kevin Smith's musings about what he ate for lunch, it's all there.

Several sports figures have learned that once you're a public figure in the Internet age, it's hard to do anything privately.

In 2003, Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy resigned after photos of him drinking and kissing female students emerged on the Web.

In 2005 and 2006, baseball stars faced questions based on steroid rumors that appeared online but never in newspapers or on television.

Earlier this year, Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein was forced to apologize after blogs reported that he accidentally sent a pornographic e-mail to numerous league officials, including commissioner Roger Goodell.

There's a whole Web site, drunkathlete.com, devoted to pictures of bleary-eyed sports stars.

And that's just the salacious stuff.

Fans routinely debate on-field tactics and off-field maneuvering on message boards that are read by coaches and athletes. Sometimes, they ratchet up pressure on local college and professional teams by starting Web sites devoted to firing a head coach.

The Huff story was a new media phenomenon from the start.

If an Oriole had disparaged Baltimore's nightlife on a Florida-based radio show in, say, 1987, it's possible that none of the club's fans would have heard it.

But Huff appeared on Sirius Satellite Radio, which reaches a national audience and thus the ears of Baltimoreans.

Irritation at his comments then percolated on Internet message boards.

Finally, the story re-popped nearly a week after Huff's appearance, when Deadspin posted the video clip featuring nude Internet porn star Melissa Midwest.

Local radio personality Nestor Aparicio posted a partial transcript of Huff's appearance, including comments about hangovers and watching pornography in hotels, on his WNST Web site.

Orioles message boards exploded Wednesday, with fans debating whether Huff should be punished or traded for embarrassing the team. Club officials condemned Huff's taste and judgment.

It was a news cycle that simply could not have happened until very recently.

But Huff spent 2007 playing mediocre ball for a bad team in a small market. His case shows that with Web sites hungry for any clip that might attract a few more hits, the embarrassment of sports figures is hardly reserved for the big stars.

Athletes have been protected for so long that some haven't caught on to this new reality, Leitch says. "I think a lot of athletes haven't gotten the memo that if something's being recorded, it's never going to be just between you and the guys sitting in the studio," he says. "And yes, it's fun to see athletes who don't get it yet."

More human

Leitch had always assumed fans want athletes to seem more human. When a civil lawsuit emerged in 2005 alleging that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Vick had given a woman genital herpes and received treatments for the disease under the alias "Ron Mexico," Leitch was surprised that neither ESPN nor Sports Illustrated picked up the story.

That pushed him toward creating Deadspin.

"This is exactly the stuff that sports fans talk about," he thought.

He has since found no limit to fan appetites for the documented foibles of elite athletes.

But if these performers are more vulnerable because of the Internet, some also have seized on it as a means to speak directly to fans.

Curt Schilling has broken important Red Sox news on his blog. For a time, Barry Bonds commented on his controversial home run chase only on his personal Web site.

"There are so many opportunities now," Maroon says. "You just have to think it through."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

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